Game of the Month, April 2016: ‘Equal’ Endgame

April has not been the kindest chess month for me.  It should have been my best, as I was one move away from beating a titled player … and then I blundered.  I threw the game away in the most heartbreaking, disappointing way possible.  Seriously, I spent about three days wondering whether I should just give chess up rather than dealing with such disappointment.

I rebounded, in a way.  I beat two players with rating over 2000, one over 2100, but I still felt unmotivated.  I stopped studying and took a break.  That time off seemed to energize me, as I’m back to normal now, more or less.  That loss will forever haunt my dreams, though …

Anyway, onto the game.  This game lasted 68 moves, and both sides had chances.  I’ll be analyzing it a little differently, though.  I’ll be using my favourite analysis method, where I break the game into five move segments, and then you compare what changed.  From there, you can quickly see where the most pivotal moments were, and so you know exactly where to invest your time.  Here goes.

Smithy – Tikom

1.e4 e5 2.d5 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+

Okay, so the first five moves aren’t very interesting, as this is still theory.  Let’s skip ahead to the next diagram.

WRONG!  Yes, this position is still theory, but it still needs to be looked at.  The opening, after all, determines how the entire game will unfold, and we can get a big look at it right now.

White has more space in the centre, and once he recaptures he will have the two Bishops.  In exchange, White has a weakened structure, and in particular the a-pawn is isolated and a potential target.  The entire game will revolve around this struggle: does White have enough of an advantage to counteract his weakness?

6. bxc3 Qc7 7. Nf3 Nc6 8. a4 Nge7 9. Be2 b6 10. O-O O-O

Both sides continue logically.  Development has nearly finished, though both sides have to figure out what to do with the Queen’s Bishop.  We can see that White has pushed his a-pawn forward.  If White can exchange that pawn, he removes his main weakness, and then White is doing great.  If Black moves his Knight from c6, maybe White can even sacrifice the pawn with a5, giving Black the Queenside weaknesses instead.

That said, it’s tough to do much here for either side, because the French defence is a silly opening.  The position is so blocked not much is threatening to happen, but that will change.  Let’s call this position roughly level.  Neither side has the advantage.

11. Ba3 Na5 12. Qd2 Bd7 13. Bb5 Bxb5 14. axb5 Nc4 15. Qd3 Nxa3

Holy boats, that’s a big change in the position!  Obviously White will recapture the Knight on the next move, and then he will likely double Rooks on the a-file.  White’s weak a-pawn is now on b5, which still isn’t great but is less weak.  The open a-file is much more useful for White than the previously open b-file.

From Black’s point of view, he’s taken away White’s two Bishops, but it still looks suspect.  His position is worse than five moves ago.  If we look deep, we’ll likely find a mistake from Black here, and that’s exactly the case.

Black’s best move was 15… a6!, letting White keep his bad Bishop and, more importantly, neutralizing any pressure along the a-file.  The computer even likes Black better.  Even without a computer, by looking at the game in five position chunks, we’d know exactly where to look to find improvements.  That’s the value of this method.

16. Rxa3 c4 17. Qd1 Qd7 18. Qa1 Nf5 19. Rb1 Rfc8 20. Ra6 g6

This position proves what we concluded last time: White has an edge.  Black has no play on the Kingside or the center, and White is completely dominating on the Queenside.  He has all his heavy pieces focusing down on the open files.  Black can do nothing else but sit and wait.

That said, it’s not easy for White to make progress.  His Knight isn’t doing anything, so that should be a focus: finding a job for the Knight.  Also, though the pressure on the a-pawn is nice, it’ll be hard to win it without losing the b-pawn in the process.  Finally, White needs to make sure he doesn’t fall to a back rank mate.  That would be bad.

Verdict: White has an advantage, but not a big one.

21.Rb4 Ng7 22. Rba4 Ne8 23. Rxa7 Rxa7 24. Rxa7 Qxb5 25. Ng5 Rc7

White has went all-in and won the a-pawn at the cost of his b-pawn.  All the same, this appears to favour White.  Black now has the biggest weakness in this position, the backwards b-pawn, and White can play Ra8 and make threats on the back rank.  White’s Queen and Rook have better coordination than Black’s.

Let’s not forget about White’s Knight.  It has advanced to g5.  Is this the best square?  Black can play h6 at any time, and White doesn’t have anything better than Nf3, which puts the Knight back where it started.  If White doesn’t win this game, this Knight’s lack of a job likely plays a part, and it’s around here where White would need to improve.

Verdict: White still has an advantage , but it’s not a big one.

26. Ra8 Kg7 27. Kf1 h6 28. Nf3 Rb7 29. Qa3 Qc6 30. Nd2 b5

The position has changed again, but the main features stay the same.  White’s pieces are still better coordinated.  Black is slightly tangled, but he is also gaining more space on the Queenside, which is a plus for him.  The weak b-pawn is in fact not so weak right now: it’s protected twice and not even attacked.

White is trying to bring his Knight to a more useful square … but where?  Nb1 -> a3 hits the b-pawn but doesn’t do much else.  Is the Knight that much better on a3 as opposed to f3?  Again, finding a job for this Knight should be White’s main concern.

Verdict: White still has a pull, but Black is holding his own.  Indeed, with pure passive defence, Black could hold the draw if he wanted.

31. f4 b4 32. cxb4 c3 33. Nb3 Nc7 34. Rd8 Qc4+ 35. Kf2 Qxb4

Wow!  It’s amazing how much a position can change in five moves.  The situation has almost completely reversed itself: Black no longer has his weak pawn, White no longer has his good piece coordination, and the Knight finally has a good square!

The new critical feature of this position is the black-pawn on c3.  It’s very far advanced, and White may win it.  Even so, so what?  With this pawn structure, it’s very hard to win even with an extra pawn.  Observe.

It’s almost impossible to create a good passed pawn here.  The only way to try involves trading all the central pawns, and that leaves a 3-2 situation that Black can still likely hold.  When you add Rooks to this situation, forget about it.  Black can do nothing and keep his draw in hand.

Verdict: The French defence is a terrible opening.  Oh, and White may have a small edge and even win a pawn, but it’s probably a draw.

36. Qxb4 Rxb4 37. Rc8 Rc4 38. Na5 Ra4 39. Rxc7 Rxa5 40. Rxc3 g5?

Two things stand out.  One, we accurately predicted White winning that pawn.  Good job us.  More importantly, though, Black has moved his g-pawn!  Why on earth did he do this?  I could put an infinite number of question marks behind that move.

Again, with passive defence, Black holds this endgame.  If you put this position in the computer after White’s 40th move, it says White has a half-pawn advantage … and then 150 moves later it finally admits it’s a draw.  We can see why this move is so bad in the next diagram.

41. fxg5 hxg5 42. Kg3 Kg6 43. Kg4 Ra4 44. Rd3 Ra1 45. c3? Ra2

Well, we would have, had I played the endgame properly. The idea is that White should be able to play g3 and h4, creating a passed pawn on the h-file.  I bungled that here, as the pressure from the Rook prevents me from advancing the pawns.

If Black plays Rc2 next, he is eying all of White’s weak pawns, and it looks impossible for White to make any progress.  The position should thus be a draw.

46. Kg3 f5? 47. exf6 Kxf6 48. Rf3+ Kg6 49. Re3 Kf6 50. Rf3+ Kg6

Hold the phone!  Black has again advanced his pawns for no reason, and that gives me new winning chances.  Now my g-pawn can be passed as well, since the Black f-pawn is now gone.  If White could somehow trade his c-pawn for the g-pawn, he’s suddenly beyond winning.  Well, probably.

Again, if Black just hung tight, he has an easy draw.  Now things aren’t so clear.  The position is likely still drawn, but there’s far more room for Black to make a mistake.

51. Rf2 Ra3 52. Rc2 Kf5 53.h4 gxh4+ 54. Kxh4 Ke4 55. g4 Kd3

Case in point: believe it or not, White is now winning.

White’s passed g-pawn, which Black so thoughtfully gave us, is lightning quick up the board.  Black takes too long to get his own pawn going, and both his pieces are too far away to stop White.  Just like that, it’s over.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief here.

However, didn’t I just say last diagram that the position is likely drawn?  What the heck happened between now and then?

Whenever you see such a huge change in a position from diagram to diagram, you know it’s critical, and that’s where you focus your attention.  If we do that and examine every move, we find that Black had the tactical shot 53…e5!  This forces a draw, as it will exchange all the pawns.

Black missed this shot, and that’s understandable.  What’s more ‘obvious’ than moving the King closer to White’s weak pawns?  Unfortunately, sometimes the obvious move is the wrong move…

56. Rc1 Ra8 57. g5 Rh8+ 58. Kg4 Kd2 59. Rf1 Kxc3 60. Rf4 Rg8

Now the winning idea becomes clear.  Black’s King is too far away.  White’s Rook both protects the pawn and prevents Black from advancing his King closer.  The Black Rook cannot stop the pawn, not when it’s supported by the King.

61. Kh5 Rh8+ 62. Kg6 Kd3 63. Kg7 Ra8 64. g6 Ke3 65. Rh4 Ra4 66. Kf6 Ra6 67. Ke5 Kf3 68. g7 Ra8 1-0

Yes, I know did more than five moves, but I think that’s okay, giving the game ended three moves later.  There is no defence.

Conclusion

The conclusion for the game is pretty simple: White got a better position out of the opening, gaining a very small advantage.  White used that advantage to eventually win a pawn, albeit in a very drawish endgame.  Black played that endgame badly, and I won.  Woo!

Also, the French defence is a silly opening, but I think we established that.

The bigger conclusion, though comes from looking at how we analyzed this game.  Instead of looking at every single move, we looked at the position every five moves.  This gave us a sense of how the game flowed, and it showed us definitely where the most critical positions were.  In short, if the position changed a lot from diagram to diagram, that was a critical position.

Once you know the critical positions, you can then zero in on them and study them in depth.  This is a very efficient study technique, especially if time is limited.  Rather than studying moves that don’t really matter, you study the moves that determined the game’s outcome.  That’s vital.

Moreover, you will increase your strategic and planning skills.  Instead of just finding moves, you learn to find plans.  You start seeing which pieces have good futures and which ones are liabilities.  One thing I learned from GM Smirnov is the incredible importance of planning, and this type of analysis can really help.

Try it with your own games.  See if you can spot critical positions.  Observe how the opening plans merge into the middlegame attacks and then the endgame wins.  It will really help improve your chess!  Good luck.

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